Paperhand Puppet Intervention Celebrates 20 Years of Larger-Than-Life Pageantry

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By Molly Weybright | Photo By Lee Capps


It’s Saturday morning, and Donovan Zimmerman is papier-mâchéing what will eventually become a puppet in an open-air studio in Saxapahaw. The work depicts a giant tree, but this one has eyes bigger than Donovan’s hands and an impressive amount of detail. Nearby, about 20 volunteers, interns and employees are working on different projects, all in preparation for Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s upcoming 20th anniversary show, “We Are Here.”

These Saturday community days began in May and are meant to get the public more involved with Paperhand Puppet’s annual productions. “It allows people to be more engaged, and we want our art to be engaging,” Donovan says. “We have bigger ideas than we can pull off on our own at this point, so we need folks to come, otherwise we’d have to shrink back down.”

Over the past two decades, Paperhand Puppet has become a summertime staple for many families in and around Orange County. Its productions at the Forest Theatre feature handmade puppets on a grand scale and stories that are meant to challenge and criticize the human condition. This year they will celebrate this milestone anniversary with a coffee table book and a puppetry festival in addition to their annual show.

When artistic directors Donovan and Jan Burger co-founded Paperhand Puppet, their mission was to bring people together and create art experiences centered around community. The evidence that they’ve met and exceeded that goal is seen in the dedicated audiences they’ve drawn to their shows, which have become a tradition for many local families. Donovan often hears stories from people who have grown up with Paperhand Puppet, who saw their first show at 7 or 8 years old and who are now starting to bring their own children to the events.

Jesse Wright, on the other hand, has never seen a Paperhand Puppet show. He is visiting the United States for the first time from Australia to intern with the theater company. After stumbling across their website while living in Spain, he knew he had to get involved. 

“I’m just getting to play and pick the brains of the genius guys behind this,” Jesse says. “I’ve seen Donovan do a few enactments with some of the masks, and he is so talented. It just brings a smile to my face.”

The smiles are significant, but Paperhand Puppet is also about enacting change in the world. “We are here to question, challenge and dismantle the status quo,” he says reflecting on this year’s theme for “We Are Here.”

Donovan has many hopes for the future, like bringing his puppets to underserved communities across the state, nation and the world that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience this kind of art. But for now, Donovan plans to celebrate and revel in this anniversary, and continue to challenge audiences to ask why we are here. 

Paperhand Puppet Intervention runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday (plus Labor Day) Aug. 2 through Sept. 29 (with the exception of Sept. 6-8 when they’ll perform in Raleigh). The shows are a suggested donation of $20 for adults and $10 for kids. 

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Jessica Stringer

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